Yesterday, I tweeted a great quotation from Tertullian, one of the church’s earliest theologians; he lived in the late second and early third centuries in north Africa. He said, “A Christian alone is no Christian.”
This generated a fair bit of conversation on Facebook, so I thought I’d take a moment to expand a little on what that means, as I see it. Remembering that Tertullian wrote in the years before the Christian faith was established and had any credence with society at all, the church had a much stronger sense of community. Under persecution, the church experienced the value of community in ways that it generally doesn’t appreciate when it is not persecuted.
If you need an example of how community is cherished in persecution, consider the Jews. We tend to think of how they ‘stick together’ and look out for each other in the shadow of the Holocaust, but in reality, this has been true since the diaspora in the second century. Anytime a Jewish person or family is in crisis, it is the Jewish community that tends to the needs first.
What Tertullian is telling the church is that we could learn from our Jewish friends.
But this is true not just in a practical sense, but in a theoretical, theological sense, too: with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2, never again in the New Testament are Christ-followers highlighted positively except in connection with a community of faith, the church. Without other Christians, it is virtually impossible to be a Christian.
This is why Sacraments are celebrated within the community of faith. This is why church membership so strongly emphasizes participation in church life. This is why the genius of Presbyterian polity involves the whole leadership of the church, not just the pastor, in the care of the congregation.
Can we be Christians in isolation? If our faith is strong and our isolation is mandated, perhaps; but if we intentionally isolate ourselves from fellow believers, it is unlikely that our faith can stand. We were made for Christian community. And that’s what Tertullian would have us know, in brief. The church may not be perfect, but it is the beautiful Bride of Christ, and it’s “part of the deal” when it comes to engaging as followers of Jesus.